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Mustang Moon

Book #2 of Phantom Stallion

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About The Book

The beloved second book in the middle grade Phantom Stallion series about a girl, her horse, and the beauty of the American West returns with a brand-new, stunning cover and bonus material! Perfect for fans of Canterwood Crest and classic horse stories like Black Beauty and My Friend Flicka.

Sam has befriended the mysterious, powerful mustang known as the Phantom, and she’s determined to defend his freedom on the open range. But when tame mares start going missing from local ranches, the Phantom becomes the number one suspect—and there’s one rancher who would use any excuse to capture the wild white stallion.

When a reward is offered to anyone who can bring the Phantom in, Sam is no longer just fighting for his freedom—she’s fighting for his life.

Excerpt

Chapter 1

Chapter 1


A CRESCENT MOON, THIN AND silver as the edge of a dime, shone on the lone stallion. With nervous steps, he crossed the river, then picked his way up the bank to the dark and silent River Bend Ranch.

It was midnight. No dogs barked. No coyotes howled, and no night birds called an alarm. The high Nevada desert had lost its daytime heat, and every creature slept. Except Samantha Forster.

For weeks Sam had waited through the night, hoping the silver mustang who’d once been hers would return.

Tonight, after she’d fallen asleep, questioning nickers from the saddle horses had wakened her. Sam had run on tiptoe downstairs to the kitchen. She didn’t dare turn on a light or fling open the door to the ranch yard.

Wild as any deer or wolf, the Phantom had good reasons to flee from humans. Just weeks ago, he’d been roped and confined in a corral. Since the night she’d helped to free him, the Phantom hadn’t been back.

Standing at the kitchen window, Sam could only watch. What she saw confused her.

The stallion stalking toward the ranch wasn’t silver. He wasn’t galloping with liquid grace. He wasn’t the Phantom, and he wasn’t supposed to be here.

Fighting to see through the darkness, Sam opened her eyes so wide they burned. She pressed so close, her nose touched the windowpane.

Her breath fogged the glass as she whispered, “Who are you?”

As if he’d heard, the horse stopped. His tail switched over thick haunches. He shook his shaggy mane before lifting a head that seemed too big for his sturdy neck. He studied the empty round pen in front of him and then glanced at the white house with green shutters on his right. His ears aimed down the gravel road, toward the barn and small pen, but he didn’t seem to notice the white-faced Hereford calf staring back.

The stallion turned toward the big pasture and paraded along the fence. A dozen tame horses edged closer, heads bobbing as they watched. Sam couldn’t hear their snorts and nickers, but she knew the horses were talking.

Frustrated, Sam brushed overgrown bangs back from her eyes. No, the stallion didn’t look like the Phantom, but what were the chances another wild horse would just trot across the river and down the Forsters’ driveway?

Zero, that’s what.

The Phantom had been born on River Bend Ranch. Sam had hand-raised him from a wobbly legged foal to a swift two-year-old. Only a terrible accident had parted them. But the Phantom had remembered her, and he’d come back.

This horse didn’t move like the Phantom, but Sam needed a closer look. She turned the knob, opened the door a few inches, sucked in her stomach, and almost slipped through.

When her nightgown snagged on the wooden doorframe, Sam gave it a tug. It came loose with a soft rip.

The heavy-headed stallion wheeled just long enough to see who’d launched this ambush. He wasn’t white, but a sifting of pale hair flickered in the weak moonlight as the stallion headed toward the river. River Bend’s tame horses neighed in excitement as the wild one galloped along the fence.

When the horse abandoned his noiseless moves, Sam blinked. It wasn’t his suddenly thunderous running that surprised her. It was his sudden stop.

The stallion glared over his shoulder directly at Sam. Then he struck the fence with a deliberate kick. Amazed, Sam wondered how the collision of hooves on wood could sound just like a dare.

“?‘Catch me if you can.’ That’s what he seemed to say.” Sam waited for her friend Jake Ely to laugh out loud.

Being Jake, he didn’t laugh.

He smacked his dusty Stetson against his jeans and leaned against the rails of the round pen. With glossy black hair tied back from browned cheekbones, Jake looked a lot like his Shoshone father. He did, at least, until he squinted against the sun and gave Sam the world’s smallest smile. Then Jake looked like a lazy tomcat.

“Now you’ve got two horses talkin’ to you, huh, Brat?”

Jake was sixteen, just over two years older. He and Sam had been friendly enemies forever. During summer and after school, Jake worked on River Bend Ranch as a cowboy, but he’d never stopped teasing her like a big brother.

“Three,” Sam said, jerking her thumb toward the big pasture. “You forgot Ace.”

Hearing his name, the bay mustang with the perfect Arab-shaped face trotted toward the fence of the ten-acre pasture. He tossed his head, his black forelock flipping to show his white star, as he came toward Sam. He didn’t get very far.

Strawberry, a big roan mare, darted forward, ears flattened. Ace stopped.

The gelding lowered his head and backed away a few steps, but not before Banjo, Dad’s bald-faced bay, joined in. He flashed Ace a devilish look and launched a quick kick.

“Knock it off!” Sam jogged toward the fence, waving her hands.

Banjo’s kick didn’t connect. He and Strawberry didn’t let Sam’s shout hurt their feelings either. Both swished their tails and moved farther into the pasture.

“Ace, come here, boy.” Sam extended her hand over the fence, but Ace stayed back. He looked so forlorn, Sam took his loneliness to heart.

“I wish Ace could tell us why the other horses pick on him,” Sam told Jake. “They’re just evil.”

“They’re not evil.” Jake gave her shoulder a shake. “Animals have a pecking order. Somebody’s the boss, and somebody’s at the bottom. With these guys”—Jake nodded toward the horses—“Ace is the outsider.”

Sam watched Jake. The youngest of six brothers, he’d inherited all the most boring chores at home on the Three Ponies Ranch. When he’d started working at River Bend, Dad had quickly recognized Jake’s intuitive handling of horses.

Sam sighed. It had been Jake who’d taught her Shoshone taming techniques to gentle her own colt.

“Ace looks like he might have lost a little flesh,” Jake said. “Beyond the normal cuts and kicks, he’s showing ribs. That means they’re not letting him eat. I think we’d better talk to your dad.”

“Don’t have to.” Dad’s voice came from behind them. “I’ve been watching Ace myself.”

Sam could’ve sworn Dad had already ridden out for the day. As he moved between her and Jake, Dad’s shirt smelled of wind and summer sagebrush, so he must have just returned. Dad worked hard for the bare living the ranch brought in.

Wyatt Forster shifted his weight on one leg, moving with a stiffness that had nothing to do with his boots. Tall, with a face tanned the color of saddle leather, he looked like what he was—a man who’d been a cowboy all his life. As usual, Dad’s jaw was set in a stubborn expression Sam had no problem recognizing.

Gram always told Sam that she looked like Mom had when she’d been a teenager. But Sam knew different. She might share Mom’s auburn hair, brown eyes, and way with animals, but each time Sam looked in the mirror, especially when she was mad, it was Dad’s hard-set expression that stared back at her.

“We’ll move Ace into the barn pen and try Buddy in here,” Dad said.

Sam pictured her orphan calf, Buddy, out with the horses. Buddy wasn’t much taller than a big dog. For short distances, though, she might be the speediest animal on River Bend Ranch.

Buddy would be fine, but Ace would be lonely.

“We’ll put another horse with him, of course.” Jake glanced toward Sam.

“Of course,” Sam echoed, and she felt her shoulders loosen in relief.

Though she’d been born on the ranch, Sam had just returned home a couple of months ago. After a serious accident, she’d had to spend two years in San Francisco with her aunt. When Jake clued her in about details like this, she was usually grateful.

“He’s your horse, Sam,” Dad said. “Who should he be penned with?”

She held out her hand and wiggled her fingers toward Ace. Before Dad had given Ace to her at the beginning of summer, the gelding had never been babied. Now he understood an open hand could mean affection as well as food. Even though he could see her empty palm, Ace sidled along the fence toward her.

“C’mon, boy,” Sam crooned.

She ignored Jake’s groan. He thought she pampered Ace too much. But Ace was a mustang, used to the security of a herd, even if the only other member of that herd was Sam.

Sam considered the horses in the pasture.

Although cattle paid the bills, horses were the pride of River Bend Ranch. In this pasture alone, there were three purebred Quarter Horses, a lean buckskin with Thoroughbred blood, several mixed-breed cow ponies, and some young stock Jake and Dad were schooling for resale. And Ace.

Which of the horses wouldn’t bully Ace in the small pen? While Sam tried to decide, the screen door slammed.

“Oh shoot,” Sam muttered.

Gram walked toward her, jingling the keys for her huge boat of a car. In khaki pants and a pink polo shirt, with her gray hair coiled into a knot, Gram looked downright stylish. And ready to go.

She and Gram were driving into Darton to shop for a backpack and school clothes. Gram had said Sam had time to feed Buddy her bottle if she hurried. Sam had hurried, but then she’d started talking to Jake and one conversation led to another.

Before she had time to explain that she was choosing a roommate for Ace, there was a snort, a grunting neigh, the sound of hooves. Then pain.

“Ow!” Sam shouted.

As Ace had sprinted away from Strawberry and Banjo, he’d brushed Sam’s hand. With a pop, her fingers had bent at a weird angle.

“I’m fine,” Sam insisted, but Gram paced toward her at double time, wearing a frown.

Sam’s ring and little fingers had already started to swell, but she knew they weren’t broken. Biting her lip and keeping the squeal of pain inside, Sam made a fist and showed Gram.

“Just fine, see?”

Gram was too busy glaring at Dad to see.

“You know I love everything that breathes on this ranch—with the exception of that rattlesnake I saw by the woodpile, and even he’s keeping rats out of the house—but, Wyatt,” Gram lectured, “I do not and never will think a mustang makes a good mount for your daughter.”

Gram did love every living thing. Just yesterday, Sam had come upon her fretting over a butterfly in a spider’s web.

“Heavens, Samantha,” Gram had said. “To free that butterfly means to starve that spider.”

Gram had stood watching for ten minutes before a hot August wind blew both predator and prey into the air.

Now, though, Gram was talking about Ace. And the Phantom. Sam couldn’t bear to lose either of them.

“I guess Strawberry and Banjo are out as stablemates.” Sam tried to change the subject.

“I don’t know what I was thinking,” Dad said. He rubbed the back of his neck.

“About what?” Sam looked between Dad and Gram. “I guess I’ll get used to being ignored.” Sam tried to make it sound like a joke, but something in Dad’s expression told her what he was thinking.

He and Gram were picturing that night three weeks ago when she’d clung to Ace on a wild ride away from the Bureau of Land Management corrals. In a rare decision, the BLM, the government agency charged with overseeing the country’s wild horses, had agreed the Phantom was better off free and wild. So Sam had ridden Ace, charging down a steep rock-strewn hillside, galloping beside the Phantom, leading the terrified stallion to safety.

Dad drew a deep breath. Then far more than his usual few words came streaming out. “You could’ve broken bones. You could’ve fallen and knocked out your teeth or hit your head like you did last time.” Dad gave her a hard stare, then closed his eyes.

Sam might have asked what all this had to do with picking a roommate for Ace if she hadn’t heard what Dad didn’t say: You might have been killed.

“I’m mad at myself, not you,” Dad said. “I shouldn’t have let you do it.”

“That’s the truth,” Gram said.

As Gram’s voice faded, Sam imagined Ace and the Phantom running across the desert together. Ace might be bullied by the saddle horses, but he had a powerful friend in the Phantom. He trusted Ace. The two horses had matched strides all the way down the hillside.

They shared a wild spirit. If only things could work out like they did in the movies, Ace would be the nerdy sidekick to the superhero Phantom Stallion.

“That stallion hasn’t been around since the BLM caught him, right?” Dad asked.

“No, and it’s not like I rode him, even when he did come around,” Sam said.

“That’s not saying you wouldn’t do it if you thought you could.” Dad’s eyes locked onto Sam’s, and he waited.

Dad hadn’t asked her a question, exactly, so Sam stayed silent. She’d never been able to lie, even about snatching an extra cookie. When Gram interrupted, Sam relaxed, until the words sank in.

“Samantha,” Gram said, “you’d better stay in the house at night.”

“I can’t—”

“Yes, you can. You’ll have homework to keep you busy soon.”

“But I’m a good student. I get my homework finished fast, and—”

“You’ll need a full night’s sleep to keep up.” Dad glanced at Jake, then saw he wouldn’t get any backup there. “You’re probably thinking Darton High is a little hick school, way behind your San Francisco classes, but you might be surprised.”

Sam pretended to study the horses in the pasture. She was really replaying Gram’s and Dad’s words.

You’d better stay in the house….

You’ll need a full night’s sleep to keep up….

So far they hadn’t forbidden her to go out. She needed to distract them before she was forced to make a promise she’d surely break.

“Sweetheart!” Sam pointed at the corral.

Everyone turned to look at the long-legged pinto. Sweetheart was solid black, except for a heart-shaped white patch on one hip. Sweetheart had been Gram’s saddle horse for as long as Sam could remember.

“Sweetheart would be perfect to put in with Ace,” Sam said hurriedly, although the way Gram’s lips tightened, Sam knew she wasn’t fooled one bit. “She’s never bitten or kicked him. Have you seen her do it, Jake?”

“Nope.”

“In fact, I haven’t seen her lash out at any of the horses,” Sam said, “ever.”

“Wyatt schooled that horse to have perfect manners, especially in company,” Gram said, looking a little dreamy. “He gave Sweetheart to me right after he and your mother were married.”

A bit of the silence was filled by the sound of a crow cawing from a fence post. Buddy slurping clumsily from a water trough took up a little bit more of the quiet. Still, Sam heard the same throat-tightening hush that fell each time Gram talked about Mom.

“I don’t have time to stand around and gossip. Sam, you move those horses when you get back.” Dad jerked the brim of his hat down to cover his eyes. “There’s work to be done, Jake, unless you’re scooting off to town with these girls.”

“No, sir,” Jake said, and Sam wondered if he knew he’d tugged at his hat brim just like Dad.

As Gram’s Buick bumped across the bridge over the river that had given the ranch its name, Sam sighed.

With a quick sidelong glance, Sam checked out Gram. She showed no sign of anger, no sign she was ready to lay down the law.

Sam watched the high desert hills swing up into real mountains to the north. Thick sagebrush made them appear carpeted with green, but Sam knew better. Rough terrain led to the Calico Mountains. Up there, somewhere, lay the secret valley where the Phantom hid his herd.

She and Gram headed the other way.

The two-lane asphalt road ran straight at the horizon, toward Alkali. Too small to be called a town, Alkali had a coffee shop and a gas station. On Tuesdays, the county bookmobile—a library on wheels—stopped there. Sam had convinced Dad to let Jake borrow the truck and drive her there, twice.

Today Gram drove right on through Alkali.

“I thought about stopping for a soda,” Gram said, nodding at the diner, “but we’ll get lunch at the mall.”

“Great,” Sam said, then turned on the car radio. One thing you could say for Gram’s old Buick: its antenna picked up every radio station for hundreds of miles around.

Sam found herself humming along with the oldies station Gram favored. Even if funds were short, and they were, Sam liked shopping. She’d been in sixth grade the last time she’d gone to the mall in Darton. From what she’d heard, it had grown.

“Samantha?”

Sam turned. When Gram kept her eyes on the road, Sam knew it was a bad sign.

“I won’t lock you in your room at night, but I’m serious about staying away from that stallion. If I catch you sneaking out, you’ll be grounded.” Gram looked at her then. “I mean that literally. There’ll be no riding until you’ve learned your lesson.”

What could she do? Sam looked down and saw her hands shaking in her lap. She put them out of sight, tucking her fingers between her thighs and the car upholstery.

Gram was making her choose between Ace and the Phantom. It wasn’t fair. She couldn’t stand even the idea of giving up her long daily rides on Ace, but it would break her heart if she never saw the Phantom again.

About The Author

L. Cooper-Schroeder

Terri Farley has always loved horses and is overjoyed that she outgrew her childhood allergy to them. She taught middle school and high school language arts and journalism in inner-city Los Angeles before moving to the cowgirl state of Nevada. Now she rides the range researching the books that have made her an award-winning author and an advocate for the West’s wild places and wildlife—especially wild horses. Through school and library visits, Terri continues to work with young people learning to make their voices heard. She lives in a one-hundred-year-old house with her family, which includes her dog, Willow. In true collie fashion, Willow rescued the youngest member of the Farley family, an orphaned kitten named Tamarack.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Aladdin (July 4, 2023)
  • Length: 336 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781665916356
  • Grades: 3 - 7
  • Ages: 8 - 12

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